Automatgenererad bild.

On a study visit to the Safeman company, Jonas Enebro from SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and Mats Svensson from Kreol look at production waste from manufacturing. Photo: Ignacy Jakubowicz

Published

13 November 2014

Waste research enters final phase

A simple manual is to help manufacturing industry to recycle bioplastics. This is one of many forthcoming results from Mistra Closing the Loop, the waste research programme that is now starting its last year of activities.

‘We’re working on the potential for recycling biobased plastic materials. We study risks and pitfalls, but also the technical scope for improving recycling,’ says Ignacy Jakubowicz, researcher at SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and project manager for Green Plastics, part of Mistra Closing the Loop.

Increasingly, plastic materials are being made from sugar, starch and other renewable raw materials. ‘Bioplastics’, as these materials are called, still accounts for only about 1% of the global plastics market, but the proportion is rising rapidly. There has long been a lack of basic knowledge about how to deal with bioplastics in the recycling phase. The Green Plastics research project currently remedying this lack.

In collaboration with four companies, scientists at SP, Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Borås have studied material recovery from three common bioplastics — polylactic acid (PLA), polyamide 10,10 and starch-based plastic — in terms both of production waste and discarded plastic products.

Better control of material flows

The scientists’ achievements to date include developing a practicable method of identifying polymers included in certain mixed bioplastics, i.e. plastics derived from both renewable biomass and fossil fuels. This is a key stage of the recovery and recycling chain, to ensure an even quality of material flows. The researchers have also simulated recycling processes in a lab environment and then tested the results on a large scale in companies involved.

The work has brought better knowledge of how bioplastics can be recycled, but also insights on when material recovery or recycling is not suitable.

‘We’ve found limitations with certain bioplastics. In normal use, the material breaks down rapidly. This limits the scope for recovering the material several times,’ says Ignacy Jakubowicz.

Green Plastics is one of the seven projects in the Mistra Closing the Loop research programme. Current progress in several of the projects was recently presented at ‘A New Focus on Waste in 2014’ (Avfall i nytt fokus 2014), a conference in Gothenburg. In general, the programme has been successful to date, claims Programme Director Evalena Blomqvist.

‘In one of the project, a new patent for a process is being developed,’ she says.

The huge range of project themes has been a challenge to the programme management. The programme includes specialist technological projects — for example, to bring about better material recovery from vehicles and phosphate recovery in the chemical industry — and design-oriented projects to study the potential for developing new products from waste.

Connections between industry and academia

Lena Smuk, the programme coordinator, works to enhance communication among the researchers and generate possible collaboration among the apparently disparate projects. Her primary task in the year ahead will be to draw up a synthesis report to pinpoint future research needs, and thus also stake out the path towards a possible extension of the programme.

‘Up to now, the programme has created new connections between universities and Swedish industry, but also helped to improve university education in the area of waste,’ Smuk says.

For the Green Plastics researchers, roughly a year of the project period remains. One plan is to compile a recycling and recovery manual with scientifically based recommendations on how industry is to deal with bioplastics in the processes concerned. In addition, a life-cycle analysis is to be concluded. Its purpose is to compare fossil-based plastics and bioplastics in terms of material recovery. Traditional, fossil-based plastics, unlike biobased plastics, can in many cases be recycled several times without any loss of quality. This means that bioplastics are not always obviously preferable from the environmental point of view, according to Jakubowicz.

‘Of course, it’s good to get away from oil dependence. But if bioplastics can’t be recycled more than once it’s not certain that the total environmental load they cause is smaller than that of the material they replace,’ Jakubowicz points out.

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

mistra closing the loop

The programme started in 2012 and is intended, through its seven projects, to contribute new technical solutions, as well as increased knowledge, in the area of waste. The long-term objective is to reduce the volume of waste and boost material recovery in Swedish industry.

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